Rail Traffic and Climate Change Part of Gateway Pacific Environmental Review

coalterminalBy Floyd McKay. Originally published by Crosscut.

Gateway Pacific, the giant export terminal north of Bellingham, took a major step forward Thursday as developers agreed to a $7.2 million contract for an environmental study on what would become Washington’s first coal-export terminal.

The new agreement, with the engineering firm CH2M Hill, follows on the heels of an earlier $1.9 million deal to conduct public meetings and prepare the scope of review. That brings the total environmental review cost for Gateway Pacific to $9,089,911, according to Whatcom County officials who will supervise the contract.

Don’t miss the “Controversy Over Coal Terminals: Should the NW Export Coal?”  Wednesday, March 12th.

SSA Marine and BNSF Railway — both signed Thursday — will deal with subcontractors who will assess the project’s impacts on human and animal health, marine life, wetlands, railway and shipping traffic and Native American culture. Whatcom County posted the contracts here on Friday.

In what could be a precedent-setting proceeding, Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology have also called for a review of the impacts of increased railroad traffic across the state, as well as a study on the impact on climate change of burning the coal in Asia.

The call for a railway study brought objections from BNSF, which inserted statements in the contract: “BNSF Railway reserves its right to challenge the (state) EIS and any related agency actions at any time and in any forum . . . BNSF Railway in no way consents to jurisdiction of Ecology or County over any BNSF Railway action . . .” The railroad, which would haul the coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to the Gateway site, insists that federal law and agencies govern its operations, under the Interstate Commerce section of the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has opted for a narrower scope of environmental review, excluding rail traffic and climate change. The Corps, however, has sole jurisdiction to work with the Lummi Nation, which has raised strong objections to the terminal’s potential impact on fishing and cultural rights. The site was once a Lummi fishing and hunting ground, and its waters are used by tribal fishers.

Although the contracts call for the complex studies to be completed by April 30, 2015, nearly all proceedings thus far have taken longer than expected. The contracts allow for extensions if the studies are not completed on time. Once the Draft EIS is finished, it will face public hearings and action by several agencies, the first of which is likely to be the Whatcom County Council.

SSA Marine has been working for an export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, for nearly three decades. An earlier proposal, smaller and without coal, was approved by Whatcom County in 1997, but encountered environmental objections which resulted in a negotiated agreement in 1999. This plan is more than six times larger and is currently focused on coal. Peabody Coal and Cloud Peak Mining have already secured commitments if the terminal proceeds.

Gateway Pacific would accept some 48 million tons of coal a year, drawing nearly 1,000 ships through Puget Sound annually. Coal trains, which would run through the state from Spokane to the Columbia Gorge and up Western Washington, would number about nine loaded and nine empty trains a day, each a mile and a half long.

A similar contract is being readied for the Millennium terminal proposed at Longview on the Columbia River. It is also expected to have a broad scope of environmental review. A third export terminal, considerably smaller, has been proposed for the Columbia at Boardman, upriver from Portland. That environmental review is less sweeping than the ones in Washington.